Almost two weeks ago, in the days leading up to their regular-season finale, Free State High’s boys basketball players gathered at mid-court before practice began and just got honest with each other.
They spoke about how disappointing their season had been up to that point, how they had failed to reach their potential. Some brought up the embarrassment of losing by 23 to Shawnee Mission East on that very floor the previous night. Everyone had a chance to vocalize things they might have been keeping to themselves. If one player challenged another, it wasn’t personal. It was about becoming a better team, because this was their last chance to do so.
Since that conference, the Firebirds (11-11) have won three straight — including two against teams ranked in Class 6A’s top 10 — and earned a ticket to Wichita for the 6A state tournament. As the No. 8 seed, they will face No. 1 Blue Valley Northwest (22-0) at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Koch Arena.
FSHS junior forward Cole Moreano said the heart-to-heart meeting played a role in the team’s win over Lawrence, as well as its sub-state championship, and credited senior leader Wilson Hack for making it happen.
“He kind of put everybody back down to earth,” Moreano said. “We just hadn’t played together. I think we needed to air some stuff out.”
Junior forward Khadre Lane agreed the team’s sound-off couldn’t have gone much better.
“It got all of our minds right,” Lane said. “We need to do that more often.”
What changed after the session, Moreano said, is that players took responsibility for their mistakes and past grievances.
“We all made a vow to practice better,” the junior said. “The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ is true.”
The Firebirds have paid better attention in practices since then, and the most significant improvements have come on the defensive end of the floor. In victories over Lawrence, Gardner-Edgerton and Olathe East, FSHS opponents have made just 32 percent of their shots.
It takes all five starters — Logan Bannister, Reshawn Caro, Keith Loneker, Lane and Moreano — and all five rotation reserves — Cody Scott, Blake Winslow, Weston Hack, Kyle McFarland and Innocent Anavberokhai — to make the defense work. But Moreano said it often starts with junior Winslow, the team’s “lockdown” defender.
“I just love watching him play defense,” Moreano said. “He’s done so well guarding their best players — everybody’s best players.”
Free State coach Chuck Law, taking the program to its fifth state tournament and second in his seven years, credited the defense, as well, for turning around what was once a 2-7 team.
“They believe in what we’re doing right now,” Law said, “on the defensive end in particular.”
And trusting the four other players on the court, the coach added, goes a lot farther toward a team’s success than X’s and O’s.
“It’s about your kids believing in one another, believing in their abilities,” Law said, “and going in and playing with confidence. And that’s what we’ve done.”
A difficult schedule might have firmed up the Firebirds for their late-season surge, too, but their coach said they rallied around each other and continue to do so as they prepare to battle 6A’s only unbeaten, Blue Valley Northwest, in the first round at state.
“They believe they can go down there,” Law said, “and not just show up for a three o’ clock game and have a long bus ride home. They expect more of themselves than that.”